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Social and Emotional Learning

Students wearing masks and doing schoolwork outdoors

Social and Emotional Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted daily routines, understandably creating social and emotional challenges for students, families, youth service professionals, and educators.

Students and adults who are experiencing a shared, potentially traumatic experience, such as this pandemic, are finding many of their usual support systems limited by school closures. Developing and maintaining skills to cope, build and maintain relationships, and manage our well-being in this uncertain environment are more important than ever.

An intentional focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) during summer school can support both students’ and adults’ social and emotional wellness, and the strengthening of their SEL skills, leading to more resilient students and staff. Students and adults who are resilient have the ability to weather diversity and are better prepared to manage mental health challenges when they arise.

Social and emotional learning is a process by which we learn self-management, self-awareness, social-awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Like almost all learning, this is a two-part process: 1) the acquisition of skills; and 2) the application of those skills. This learning is bolstered by strong relationships with adults and peers, as well as by environments that are supportive, welcoming, and consistent.

Of particular importance, implementing SEL in any setting requires that the work be focused on students’ strengths and assets rather than on deficits. Additionally, building, strengthening, and supporting SEL competencies using a culturally-responsive approach that engages in co-construction with families of the SEL implementation approach, and putting an equal focus on adult SEL competence and capacity, is fundamental to successful and quality education.

This section will address: Direct and intentional SEL skill instruction, developing safe and supportive environments through the integration of SEL skills across instructional practices and environments, building adult SEL competencies to better support students, and enhancing the power of social and emotional learning to advance equity.

Skill Development and Promotion 

Social and emotional skill development and promotion is most often associated with an evidence-based SEL curriculum, but it really results from both the explicit instruction of skills and the integration of these SEL skills across all student environments, including all instructional formats and content areas.

Direct instruction of SEL skills can occur through the use of an evidence-based curriculum. Many of these curriculums can be adapted for a virtual or blended environment and can provide teachers with activities and lessons to support skill development. Considering ways in which all students can participate, both virtually and in person, will be important to maintaining classroom relationships and connections and can help re-establish or reinforce classroom norms.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has identified five SEL broad competencies: 1) Social Awareness; 2) Self Awareness; 3) Relationship Skills; 4) Self Management; and 5) Responsible Decision Making. Within these five domains are more specific skills such as understanding our emotions, recognizing our own biases and recognizing when and how to help others. The Wisconsin SEL Competencies, designed for pre-kindergarten through adult levels, is one tool available to educators to provide some structure around identifying skills for focused and intentional instruction and progress monitoring of skill growth, Keep in mind that SEL skills are not to be used to create compliant students; they are one tool to support student wellness and resilience.

Creating Safe and Supportive Learning Environments 

Creating a learning space that feels safe, supportive, and inviting is a key component of supporting students' social and emotional well-being. Trauma-sensitive social and emotional learning is a way to create such an environment for all students and especially for those who have experienced traumatic events. This last school year exposed all students to numerous life-altering and potentially traumatic events. Whether the learning environment is virtual or in person, all learners will need a soft place to land. Feeling welcomed, cared for, and supported is essential to both social and emotional wellness and academic growth.

Developing and maintaining supportive relationships with students is one of the most impactful strategies available to educators. While it can be challenging to do this in a virtual environment, it is no less important. Note that students may be struggling to stay connected with one another during the period of closures, or they may grapple with social interactions as they transition to face-to-face groups. They may even be uncertain about the norms for interacting, as they appear to be changing frequently. Focusing on staying connected to students, and helping them stay connected to one another, in ever-changing environments, is vitally important. Connections to adults is one of the more enduring protective factors against numerous risk factors. This relationship mapping tool  from Harvard Graduate School of Education can help you ensure that all students have this necessary connection.

Offering choices to students when possible may also help mitigate a sense of losing control. Staff should consider ways to intentionally provide students with opportunities to express opinions and ideas, work cooperatively with and mentor each other, make genuine choices, and take on leadership roles, just as they normally would with in-person learning. Purposefully fostering a sense of agentic engagement will also help play a role in the successful transition from virtual to in-person learning, when the opportunity arises.

Creating safe and supportive learning environments for students is not enough to promote trauma-informed SEL. The adults working with students may be struggling as well, as stress likewise impacts the ability of adults to bring their best SEL self to the learning environment. An equal focus on promoting and supporting SEL in adults, then, is critical in developing and maintaining a successful virtual learning environment. For example, providing support to address adult compassion fatigue, such as the Compassion Resilience Toolkit, helps educators to build their own SEL skills. The use of the 3 Signature Practices and Morning Meetings in staff interactions can help to create and maintain a safe and supportive environment for adults as well.

Adult SEL

What is adult SEL? It is the competencies that adults need in order to manage stress and create safe and supportive environments, the skills and mindsets adults need to effectively embody, teach and coach SEL for students, and the overall well-being and emotional state of adults in school settings4.

Focusing on the social and emotional competence of adults can improve adult well-being, create positive work environments, increase feelings of competence and self-efficacy, aid adults in modeling skills for students, and build and support educators’ resilience. Districts and schools can support adult SEL by planning professional learning opportunities for all staff to know and understand what SEL is and the role it plays in day-to-day functioning. District and school level actions that support SEL also include providing the structures for adult collaboration, planning, and self-care. Schools and districts can additionally support the independent and personal SEL and resiliency growth of staff in SEL through, for example, the five high-level practices identified by Transforming Education: 1) examine identity; 2) explore emotions; 3) cultivate compassionate curiosity; 4) orient toward optimism; and 5) establish balance and boundaries. Providing time for staff to focus on these practices with themselves and others, and integrating many of the activities associated with this skill building into meetings and staff planning times, can communicate the school or district’s commitment to comprehensive SEL and help to develop working communities that adults will find safe and supportive.

4SEL for Educators Toolkit. Transforming Education.

Advancing Equity through Social and Emotional Learning

As shared above, youth service professionals and educators have a responsibility to work on our own adult SEL competencies in order to be able to confront and lift up our full humanity, and that of our students (i.e., the “whole child”). What this means is that SEL work must be done with a foundation built in and through equity—as must all educational work.

Educational equity means that every student has access to the resources and educational rigor they need at the right moment in their education, across race, gender, ethnicity, language, ability, sexual orientation, family background, and family income5. Social and emotional learning can be a powerful tool to disrupt inequities and help ensure all students graduate college, career, and community ready, and this is true in particular when we acknowledge that equity and SEL are not mutually exclusive; seeing them as such risks yielding a vehicle for indoctrinating interactions, curriculum, and more. Put another way, SEL is not a behavior intervention, or a tool to label a perceived deficit; rather it must continue to be strengths-based and focused on skills and mindsets as outcomes. Social and emotional learning is also an inextricable part of acknowledging, questioning, and responding to inequitable systems “upstream” in our educational settings, which is a necessary part of seeing and honoring the “whole child,” their families, and their communities. In fact, as the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the “opportunity gap” for many of our most vulnerable students, such critical attention to how SEL can build respectful, power-sharing relationships with students and their families that leverage cultural assets is more urgent than ever, and summer provides an opportunity to do so.

Five guiding principles, shared in CASEL’s schoolwide guide to SEL, complement this vision of realizing SEL as a lever for equity: 1) SEL is relevant for all students in all schools and affirms diverse cultures and backgrounds; 2) SEL is a strategy for systemic improvement, not just an intervention for at-risk students; 3) SEL is a way to uplift student voice and promote agency and civic engagement; 4) SEL supports adults to strengthen practices that promote equity; and 5) Schools must engage students, families, and communities as authentic partners in social and emotional development. Key here is that no student is inherently deficient in social and emotional skills, and that we need to create spaces that allow for all voices, stories, and identities.

But how do we approach this work humbly and purposefully? Based on extensive equity work in schools, CASEL provides the following insights in Advancing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) as a Lever for Equity and Excellence: 1) explicitly position and communicate about SEL as a lever for equity; 2) prioritize adult learning and critical reflection about their own social, emotional, and cultural competencies; 3) elevate students’ cultural assets, voice, and agency; 4) partner authentically with families and communities to develop culturally responsive approaches to SEL; and 5) establish SEL data strategies that help to share power, dismantle inequities, and build more equitable learning environments.

Dr. Dena Simmons also offers five “Strategies for Teaching Fearless SEL”: 1) Provide students opportunities to reflect on identity and equity to build self-awareness; 2) Enhance relationship skills through debate; 3) Develop responsible decision-making skills through community-based projects; 4) Use current topics to foster social awareness; and 5) Explore different expectations for self-management. You can learn more in her article, “Why We Can’t Afford Whitewashed Social-Emotional Learning.”

All learning is social and emotional, and all learning is deeply rooted in sociopolitical contexts. It is the responsibility of all to acknowledge this, realize this, and continue to work toward creating learning experiences wherein we can all be fully human.

5Adapted from The Aspen Education & Society Program and the Council of Chief State School Officers. 2017. Leading for Equity: Opportunities for State Education Chiefs. Washington, D.C.

For more information, contact: Susan Piazza, Director of Student Services/Prevention and Wellness